Book Reeview: A Quaker Approach to Research

A Quaker Approach to the Conduct of Research: Collaborative Practice and Communal Discernment by Gray Cox with Charles Blanchard, Geoff Garver, Keith Helmuth, Leonard Joy, Judy Lumb, and Sara Wolcott has grown out of a decade of experiments employing Quaker processes of communal discernment in research.1 The book itself is the product of collaborative work. Here’s my summary of the book together with a few conclusions.

Quaker practices
Quaker practices of communal discernment have been used since the mid-1600s. The tradition of practices have been refined and extended in a variety of contexts over the last 350 years.2 The Religious Society Friends is governed through communal discernment at all levels of the organization. There is no hierarchy that is authorized to provide a definite formulation of the practices.3 The early Quakers found methods that could be learned, open to all, and available at any time. This gave rise to a distinctive, holistic, and process-centered view of reality.4

Quaker faith
Quaker faith is not a set of beliefs, but a series of experiences that provide queries and leadings.5 According to the Quakers, everyone is related to the world, to each other, and to the Divine. This has to be understood in holistic and emergent ways. Rational ideas emerge from felt impulses and leadings. Collective intelligence is emergent and holistic.6

Truth and meaning / Feeling and reason
Quakers view truth as a living occurrence in the depth of bearing witness, speaking truth.7 Meaning is a communal process for the Quakers. It’s like a dance. Individuals are moving, but one dance is occuring. Quakers ask collectively what they mean. They may say different things, and yet somehow speak with one voice. Feeling and reason are viewed as interactive with one another.8

Interdependent becoming
The self is viewed as social and transitional, as becoming. At the heart of the community is a spirit that grows out of each one and into each one. This view means that thoughts and actions are guided by what is best for individuals as interdependent parts of the whole group.9 Concerns are raised, discussed, and subjected to reflection until unity is reached.10

Quaker decision-making
The process of Quaker decision-making can be described as five overlapping phases:11

1. Quieting Impulses. Entering the Silence.
2. Addressing Concerns. Listening attentively, discerning the truth, and how to live in right relationship with others.
3. Exploring Responses and Gathering shared Insights. Seeing things from different perspectives, trying to understand them in a more clear, coherent and complete way.
4. Finding Clearness. Sharing has allowed differences to find an inclusive unity.
5. Bearing Witness. Understanding leads to embodied action in the world.

Here is an example of Quaker decision-making in a secular context.

Quaker epistemology
Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge. Quakers have distinctive epistemic practices that include criteria and methods for how they know.12 Communal discernment is viewed as a human potential in general. It’s assumed that it’s possible to include communal discernment in any practices, methods, or approaches, as long as it’s done from the larger frame of Love rather than competition. A key element is deep listening, which allows tacit knowledge – and doubt – to find expression.13 The silence, the presence of attentive others, can all help to deepen the listening, and the levels of thought and feeling.14

Research as open-ended query
The Quaker process of communal discernment has successfully been adopted to research and sharing its results.13 It’s helpful to frame a research project as an open-ended query. Queries do not ask for immediate and simple answers, but invite extended reflection and questioning.14 The aim is to bring unity to the insight and focus to the analysis in ways that provide the clarity and simplicity that comes from seeing things as part of a whole.15

Observation and critical thinking
Socializing and social bonding are important in building a research community. The more participants are involved and leading activities, the more effective they are.16 Central to communal discerning is working out of the silence and practice deep listening.17 Conviction and humility need to be in constant interplay in discernment.18 Research calls for keen observation and critical thinking, but also an ability to collaboratively seek to discern the truth.19 Communal discernment can be practiced in many ways. It creates shared ownership of understandings, decisions, and actions.

Other traditions / Indigenous cultures
Egalitarian circles in which people speak out of silence are practiced in indigenous cultures around the world.20 Such traditions approach the construction of knowledge and the emergence of guidance through communal process.21 Group silence is one of the keys that underlies collaborative discernment and value-based decision-making.22 The encounter with silence is enriched when in community with others.23 Someone trained in one tradition may bring language, experience, and skills to the study of another.24

Sharing of methods
The Quaker approach to research should be understood as a proposal to enrich methods of modern science, by using open and inclusive dialogue in communal discernment.25 Interpersonal and collaborative methods can be practiced in a wide variety of settings.26 The sharing of methods between mainstream science and communal discernment traditions raises important philosophical questions.27

Common understanding
The Quaker process provides one way to increase impartiality. It is an inclusive approach that excludes no one from the research process. It allows a larger holistic understanding.28 Communal discernment aims at a ”unity” that is grounded in a common understanding and vision.29 It promotes open dialogue and is useful in research that requires collaboration among multiple disciplines. Processes seeking unity offer better prospects for arriving at reasonable and coherent ways of dealing with research issues.30

Exploration of possibilities
Much of human behavior is exploratory and experimental, and is not describable or explainable without the use of purpose, function, and intentionality.31 Adapting lives and improving behavior calls for the exploration of possibilities that are often difficult to discern. Many natural and human processes are full of emergence, non-linearity, chaos and other complex features. Centering down, entering a silence, allows listening and looking more deeply, discerning what’s possible.32

Languages structure social reality
Many social scientists have found it difficult to pursue research on humans within the framework offered by the natural sciences. And many philosophers have argued that there are systematic reasons why studies of humans must be pursued in ways that are different from classical natural science. The languages humans speak structure social reality. Interpreting human activity is more like reading a text than manipulating a mathematical formula. These basic points have been developed in a variety of ways by philosophers, anthropologists, historians, and social researchers.33

Values in-form contexts
Humans have a self-understanding, which is defined by purposes and values, as well as background assumptions they make about the world and their context. Their understanding is part of what constitutes the structure and nature of their actions and the context for such actions.34 Studying people requires learning their language and learning how they describe what they are doing and why.35 The language and practices that structure such activity differ from mathematical and mechanical descriptions and explanations. Human languages must be interpreted in a holistic way. Languages are value laden, and the values in-form and provide contexts. Such language is not reducible to axiomatic expression the way mathematical language is.36

Incoherency creates conflict
Self-understandings are almost always incomplete. And any incoherency in understanding creates conflict. Communal discernment, as a form of participatory research, can be effective toward improving understanding, mitigating in-coherencies, and reducing conflict. A high level of inclusiveness and participation is needed to avoid partisan bias and to advance knowing that includes all possible perspectives.37

Discernment is value in-formed
The functions of quieting impulses, seeking unity, finding clearness, and bearing witness can facilitate research of human social behavior.38 These functions give communal discernment its unique and helpful place in social research. Research on human communities involves studying how they discern and act based on their understanding of where they are, what they are doing, and why. The discerning of potentialities is value laden and value in-formed.39

Experiences and logical definitions
Participatory research begins with empathic listening and observing and moves through to collaborative, critical participation involving compassion.40 People who enter dialogue with each other are not mere things. They are persons who can call themselves into question and critique their entire view of the world in deeper engagement with the reality of the Other.41 They are inevitably called to treat the Other as a You, with whom they can enter into agreements as a We.42 These are vital and real experiences, and yet they elude logical definition. While this can be experienced, it cannot be defined. Attempts to analyze the experience of the lived moment as a Presence, or an ongoing Present, have proved frustrating and perplexing.43

If no one asks me, I know;
if I wish to explain it … , I know not.

– Augustine44

Grounded in shared experiences
There are in fact fundamental aspects of experience that are quite real and of central importance in understanding human life, but which elude the kind of definitions sought in mathematics, logic, and natural science. Quakers approaches such experiences with acknowledging the reality of what is experienced as well as the difficulty in capturing it in words. Their approach is grounded, not in metaphysical abstractions, but in shared experiences.45

Open, dynamic, growing insights
The Quaker experience is that rational beliefs about the world, and wise choices for acting in it, are not arrived at by simply following one’s own assumptions and observations.46 Instead, dialogue with others is necessary. The role of silence is not to shut out the world but to help quiet the inner monologue so that it becomes possible to listen, and to enter in dialogue with others. These experiences are open, dynamic, growing insights into realities characterized by emergence.47

Entering into dialogue with others in the lived moment, and being Present with them as people rather than things, are central to the experience of being human. Quaker experience provides a context that opens the process of communal discernment into broad avenues of application, including decision-making and research.48

Communal discernment methods are useful in the context of discovery. This approach makes the case that seeking unity and truth is better than appealing to interests and powers. Communal discernment can help to create a more complete and accurate understanding for all participants.49 This kind of sharing can result in more authentic and trustworthy knowledge.50

The sixth great extinction of life in planetary history is underway. We are called to act, and to act now. Yet we are also called to pause, reflect, and be humbled by our lack of understanding. A key step towards the humility needed involves questioning our current beliefs.51 We have much to learn about how to practice humility and how to use collective discernment.52

I like the book! I’m very interested in how communal discernment can be used as a practice to enhance collaboration between people. I also think that communal discernment is an example of a deeper generative order for organizing.53 The book is highly relevant to the challenges we now face as a humanity!

1 Gray Cox et al., A Quaker Approach to the Conduct of Research: Collaborative Practice and Communal Discernment (Quaker Institute for the Future, 2014), p. ix.
2 Ibid., p. xi.
3 Ibid., p. 1.
4 Ibid., p. 2.
5 Ibid..
6 Ibid., p. 3.
7 Ibid..
8 Ibid., p. 4.
9 Ibid., p. 5.
10 Ibid., pp. 5–6.
11 Ibid., p. 6.
12 Ibid., p. 13.
13 Ibid., p. 14.
14 Ibid., pp. 14–15.
13 Ibid., p. 12.
14 Ibid., p. 15.
15 Ibid., p. 18.
16 Ibid., p. 19.
17 Ibid., p. 20.
18 Ibid., p. 24.
19 Ibid., p. 30.
20 Ibid., p. 31.
21 Ibid., p. 32.
22 Ibid., p. 35.
23 Ibid., p. 36.
24 Ibid., p. 37.
25 Ibid., p. 40.
26 Ibid., p. 43.
27 Ibid., p. 45.
28 Ibid., p. 48.
29 Ibid., p. 50.
30 Ibid., p. 51.
31 Ibid..
32 Ibid., p. 56.
33 Ibid., p. 58.
34 Ibid., p. 59.
35 Ibid., pp. 59–60.
36 Ibid., p. 60.
37 Ibid., p. 61.
38 Ibid..
39 Ibid., p. 64.
40 Ibid., p. 65.
41 Ibid., p. 66.
42 Ibid., pp. 66–67.
43 Ibid., p. 67.
44 St. Augustine, The Confessions, Book XI, (accessed 2017-03-01).
45 Gray Cox et al., A Quaker Approach to the Conduct of Research: Collaborative Practice and Communal Discernment (Quaker Institute for the Future, 2014), p. 68.
46 Ibid., p. 68–69.
47 Ibid., p. 69.
48 Ibid..
49 Ibid., p. 70.
50 Ibid., p. 71.
51 Ibid., p. 72.
52 Ibid., p. 73.
53 For more information on deeper generative orders for organizing, see this series of posts.


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